On the surface, US basketball star Brittney Griner and Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout are accused of ludicrously different crimes. Griner was sentenced to a Russian penal colony for possession of a single gram of cannabis oil. Bout is allegedly the most prolific arms dealer of the past decades, fueling conflicts in Africa and beyond – and more specifically being convicted in a US court of plotting to kill Americans.
But the circumstances and political pressure on both sides reversed this imbalance.
Griner gained a significance to Americans, forcing the Biden administration to negotiate with the Kremlin at the worst point of US-Russian relations since at least the end of the Cold War. Bout’s outsized importance to Russia — despite coming to be known as the “Merchant of Death” — has always been the bigger puzzle.
The fact that this exchange happened during the Russian invasion and brutalizing of Ukraine says two things.
First: Moscow and Washington are able to do business even as Russian bombs kill innocent Ukrainian civilians, and the US provides arms to Ukraine that are killing Russian soldiers, and that nuclear powers can work on other thorny issues while bullets are flying. This is a good thing for everyone on the planet. It means some cool heads prevail, and basic interests win out.
Second: It also shows some weakness on the side of Putin. At a time when he is hawkishly flaunting nuclear rhetoric against the West, he is also agreeing to high profile diplomatic deal to get back a figure of outsized, complex importance to Russia’s elite, the intelligence community, and national pride. He is not someone Moscow would – to paraphrase the ugly slogan of Russia’s invasion in which hundreds of soldiers’ bodies have remained strewn on the battlefield – “leave behind.” These are the very people that Putin wants to curry favor with now.
Yes, it is a win for Putin, but one that comes at the cost of exposing his weakness and his need to keep the military elite he relies upon content.